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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                 63
be dying and even get Soviet Army papers----" Gra-
dually his fears were dispelled and he began to talk
Alexei lay dozing on a soft bed of pine-needles, with
half-closed eyes, listening absent-mindedly to the boy's
chatter. Only a few disjointed words reached his mind
through the haze of restful languor that had at once spread
over his whole body; and although he did not grasp what
these words meant, the sounds of his native language gave
him the utmost pleasure. Only later did he hear the story
of the disaster that befell the inhabitants of the village of
The Germans had arrived in this forest and lake re-
gion as far back as October, when the birches were
glowing with yellow leaves and the aspen-trees seemed
to be ablaze with a sinister red fire. There had been no
fighting in the immediate vicinity of Plavni. About thirty
kilometres to the west of the village, the German columns,
headed by a powerful tank vanguard, after wiping out
a Soviet Army unit that had made a stand at a hastily
built defence line, moved round Plavni, which was hidden
near a lake away from the road, and rolled on eastward.
They were in a hurry to reach Bologoye, the big railway
junction, capture it, and thus disconnect the Western and
North-Western fronts. Here, at the far approaches to this
town, all through the summer and autumn, the inhabitants
of Kalinin Region, townspeople, peasants, women, the
aged and children, people of all ages and all professions,
had toiled night and day, in the rain, in the heat,
suffering from mosquitoes, the dampness from the marsh
and bad drinking water, digging and building defence
lines. The fortifications ran from south to north for
hundreds of kilometres, through forest and marsh, round
the shores of lakes, and along the banks of small rivers
and streams.
Great were the sufferings of the builders, but their
labour was not in vain. The Germans broke through some
of the defence lines in their stride, but were checked at
the last one. The fighting changed to positional warfare.
The Germans failed to break through to Bologoye; they
had to shift the weight of their attack further south, and
on this sector to pass to the defensive.